The child I was raising to be proud of who he was and be confident in his self-expression, was slowly feeling like he needed to question this and hide who he was while at school. The weight of that conflict caused him to fall apart at home.
Nearly four years ago, I decided to move to Tokyo, Japan with my then 8-year-old son. The decision came shortly after the numerous incidents of police violence toward Black and brown men. Raising a Black son, I became increasingly nervous about what a future in Philadelphia would hold for him. So, I sought out safer environments to raise my child. After speaking with a few friends who live overseas and also raise children, I began to look for opportunities that matched my credentials in education.
After a few months, I was able to secure a job in Tokyo, Japan. The location alone was enough to make me jump at the opportunity, but the bonus was that Japan is rated among one of the safest countries in the world. It seemed to be the perfect place for a single mother and her young son.
The initial adjustment was challenging, but we were excited to be in Tokyo. The food, the sights, and the excitement of living overseas completely eclipsed the angst of our first time living abroad. We learned how to move about the city without a car and had weekly adventures exploring Tokyo. We quickly adjusted to our new life in Japan. However, the underlying stress of living in another country without friends or family eventually was debilitating at times. And the stress began to affect my son and my relationship with him.
Soon after our arrival in Japan, my son began showing signs of stress. He started bed-wetting, he was constantly irritable, and his behavior became unrecognizable. Admittedly, I was not sure how to handle this child who had changed so drastically, and it took a long time for us to learn how to communicate so he was able to get what he needed. Once we learned how to do that, I began to understand the challenges he was having at school that ended up being the root cause of his stress.
When we initially moved to Japan, he went to an all-boys Catholic school because they had a relationship with the school at which I was working. We soon realized this was not a good fit. The strict uniform policy, large class sizes, and his school’s issue with his locs made us realized that this school drastically conflicted with our own pedagogy. In a conversation with my son, he voiced that he felt the teachers and administration at his school didn’t want him to be who he was. The child I was raising to be proud of who he was and be confident in his self-expression, was slowly feeling like he needed to question this and hide who he was while at school. The weight of that conflict caused him to fall apart at home.
I eventually moved him to another school that was smaller and where I felt he could thrive until the end of my contract. He did well there, but I then noticed the implicit bias that was present with the teachers. My child is tall by US standards and towers over Japanese children. This sometimes causes people to think he is older and treat him according to their assumptions. Furthermore, his height and hue were used against him if he was playing with a smaller child. When commenting on my son’s physicality in school, his teacher said: “students and staff are beginning to fear for their safety” when my child was merely wrestling with other students. This was when I realized despite feeling safe in this new country we could never escape the bias and prejudice that unfortunately exists everywhere in the world.
While Japan’s security was appealing, the xenophobia and microaggressions were a lot to handle. As someone who has grown up in the Bible belt, I have experienced racism in various forms since my childhood. I might even go as far as to say I’ve become accustomed to being treated a certain way when I’m around certain people. But I think what made Japan a difficult place to live is there is a passive aggressiveness to the racism and xenophobia my friends and I experienced there. Often you would find someone smiling in your face, greeting you, but then in Japanese saying to their friend that we need to go back to our country – unaware my Jamaican friend speaks Japanese. What makes racism in Japan different from the rest of the world is that you never really know where you stand.
Despite the challenges we faced during that time, I don’t regret my decision to move to Japan at all. The lessons we both learned about ourselves and each other were invaluable. I learned how to adjust to a foreign land and how to put my single-mom superwoman cape away and ask for help. In that, I learned how to find a community in Japan that was supportive and loving, and continue to be even after we moved away. My son was able to experience a level of independence and safety we have never experienced Stateside. We’ve learned how to communicate better and have more compassion toward one another. Japan was the catalyst in helping me become the mother I’ve always wanted to be and the beginning of being able to give my son the childhood he deserves – one full of curiosity, mistakes, and adventure.